The 15 Best Hacker Movies - A Countdown
Of all the stereotyped film characters, the hacker is one of the most recent and stable. The figure of the hacker is already so common that practically any modern tale that includes some security breach must include one in some sort of capacity.
Always eccentric, sometimes socially awkward, or even carrying the somewhat unfair and outdated image of the classic nerd-in-the-basement that still lives with his mother, the hackers are here to stay. They represent the "new" (well, not-so-new) paradigm of electronics/computing communication and security.
Hacking is using technical knowledge to overcome obstacles. Their presence in cinema is practically the technical support of our culture to try to understand and overcome new technologies.
This list gathers the fifteen best hacker movies ever made. These films handle topics like hacker culture and/or related technology. You will find comedies, thrillers, sci-fi and of course, heist movies. No documentaries allowed, they deserve their own list. Here, you will find pure fiction, although in some cases, inspired by real events.
15) Takedown (2000)
You cannot talk about hackers in real life without mentioning the story of Kevin Mitnick and his brilliant systematic evasion of the law. His rivalry with computer crimes expert Tsutomu Shimomura largely defined the way in which this type of crimes should be fought (or committed *wink wink*).
In 2000, Joe Chapelle directed an adaptation of a book written by Shimomura himself and John Markoff called Takedown. And although many feel that Kevin Mitnick (embodied here by Skeet Ulrich) was unfairly portrayed, it's still a fundamental point of view to review.
Unfortunately, for those who aren't very interested in this rivalry between Shimomura and Mitnick, there isn't much more to see. With serious problems to entertain a wider audience, a somewhat unstable rhythm and forgettable performances (perhaps excluding Donal Logue), Takedown is a pretty pedestrian movie.
14) Real Genius (1985)
Real Genius is undoubtedly a cherished movie, but the truth is that this comedy directed by Martha Coolidge should be in the pantheon of 80's films, along with gems like The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Real Genius has all the wonderful idiocy of the 80's high school comedy, while at the same time vindicating and giving more depth to the always limited stereotype of the nerd.
With a charismatic teenage Val Kilmer and iconic characters like Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) and Lazlo (Jon Gries), this fantastic comedy about a group of young genius students who unknowingly develop a powerful laser weapon for the CIA, culminates with a memorable hacking and with a house literally exploding by popcorn, all while "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears drives us to the past.
13) Live Free Or Die Hard (2007)
After a 12-year-old hiatus, the Die Hard franchise returned with a story centered on cyberterrorism.
Inspired by John Carlin's Wired magazine article entitled "A Farewell to Arms", Live Free Or Die Hard takes up the tormented life of the great NYPD detective John McClane (Played by Bruce Willis, in case there is someone who didn't know that), who must protect the life of a young hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and avoid that another more powerful hacker named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) unleashed the "fire exit", a cyber attack destined to take control of ALL the systems of the state dependent on computerized systems .
With Kevin Smith's cameos and the appearance of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane's daughter, Live Free Or Die Hard understands hacking well within its context of a shallow-action blockbuster. It was also the last McClane movie with bearable quality.
12) Swordfish (2001)
360º explosions in bullet-time, Cool hacker Hugh Jackman with ear piercing, seductive Halle Berry getting naked to entangle his victims, Don Cheadle as the foolish arm of the law and John Travolta as an eccentric and hedonistic villain named Gabriel Shear (Is there a tendency to call "Gabriel" any villainous hackers out there?). Swordfish is stupid required entertainment.
It also includes scenes of unreal and fantastic hacking like the one in which the protagonist must hack a system in a minute, while having a gun pointed to his head and receiving a blowjob, all at the same time. Poor Hugh, so many mixed feelings.
11) Untraceable (2008)
This thriller starring Diane Lane, Colin Hanks, and Billy Burke, focuses on the excessive and uncensored morbidity on the Internet. A hacker/serial killer has begun to systematically kidnap victims, whose tortures will depend on the number of visitors to his killwithme.com page. If nobody enters, the victim will be free, without a scratch.
Of course, the tortures begin to happen with an impressive speed while the portal receives more and more visitors, becoming a viral phenomenon.
Perhaps in 2008 the plot was somewhat exaggerated, conservatively antagonizing the internet and with an obvious agenda to control contents. But almost ten years later, although we love net neutrality, the truth is that the plot doesn't look so unreal now.
10) Open Windows (2014)
It's impossible not to respect Nacho Vigalondo's ambition. Open Windows, technically, is a great directing course and its relation with montage, using as a premise to narrate everything from the monitor of a computer, in real time.
Unfortunately, the result is not as good as his ambition. One spends half of the film trying to catch up with the technology used and the outputs that different hackers-computer-criminal geniuses use to never ever break the narrative. So much explanation distracts a lot.
The plot is a wake-up call to the voyeur, the obsession with movie stars and the violation of privacy, with echoes of Rear Window, now in interactive plan 2.0.
Open Windows leaves us an interesting experience, a couple of masterful sequences, a good performance by Elijah Wood and a Sasha Gray which, considering her acting background, stands out pleasantly.
9) The Fifth Estate (2013)
80% leaking and 20% hacking, The Fifth Estate is a biographical thriller about WikiLeaks, from the perspective of one of its collaborators, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (interpreted here by Daniel Brühl). Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange and of course, the whole movie revolves around his interpretation.
Locating The Fifth Estate's intentionality is as complex as the relationship between Cumberbatch and Assange. Assange asked Cumberbatch not to be part of this project, but Cumberbatch ignored him. Both have a friendly relationship, with Cumberbatch even supporting and thanking the existence of Wikileaks. And although it seems that Assange has deep respect for the actor, he hasn't stopped qualifying the film as "massive propaganda attack."
Regardless, it's a look at the creation of WikiLeaks and therefore, a must on this list.
8) Blackhat (2015)
Ignore the fact that this movie was a box office failure. Blackhat is a serious hacking action/thriller with the seal of quality of Michael Mann.
Political tensions with the Chinese government, NSA, nuclear plants, and many well-achieved action sequences. Blackhat also had a great team of advisors and researchers, which is why the hacking sequences are one of the most authentic, real and genuine ones ever filmed.
The only thing openly unreal is the fact that a hacker looks like Chris Hemsworth. But beyond that, the Australian actor does a great job and has great chemistry with his co-stars Leehom Wang and Tang Wei.
7) Cyberbully (2015)
This modest TV movie about a depressed teenager who starts to be manipulated by a cyberbully deserves a place on this list for several reasons.
First of all, writer/director Ben Chanan managed, with the help of his actresses and daughters, to correctly portray the current western adolescent slang/culture and its complicated relationship with social networks.
Narrated in real time, with a one-hour duration, the tension achieved, even with a small dose of unreality (the magnitude of the hacking is somewhat an overkill), is great. Based on real-life experiences, Cyberbully is a relevant portrait of the enormous power we give to our digital footprint and how the culture of trolling permeates our lives.
And above all, the performance of Maisie Williams (Game Of Thrones' Arya) in what is practically a tour-de-force where her face is the 95% of the film, is admirable and the main reason to give this movie a chance.
6) WarGames (1983)
Yes. We're talking about the movie where a young Matthew Broderick plays Galaga and is a genius hacker of dial tone telephones. Yes, computers are gigantic metal furniture with lots of red and yellow little light bulbs, like Batman's TV show. Yes, the computer "villain" has the idiotic name of WOPR (which means "War Operation Plan Response" but obviously you just think of the burger). There is no doubt, the technology of this film already looks completely obsolete, idiotic and unreal.
But still, its cute approach to hacking, the wonderful anti-war message and the tension of the last act is still a unique experience. WarGames greatly compares the Cold War to child's games with bruised egos and activated paranoia. As the defining phrase goes: "Nuclear War is a strange game in which the only winning move is not to play."
5) Hackers (1995)
A must on every best hacker movies of all-time list. Iain Softley's cult classic is probably the most cartoonish and superficial view of what it means to be a hacker, but its audiovisual codes ended up identifying a whole new generation and its relationship with exponentially advanced technology.
With a monumental electronic soundtrack, a charismatic and diverse cast (Angelina Jolie, Jonny Lee Miller, Renoly Santiago, Matthew Lillard, Laurence Mason and Jesse Bradford, among others), unique hairstyles, rollerblading and magical hacking, Hackers is one of the best time capsules of the mid-'90s.
There is no way to understand the phenomenon of hacking in our culture without enjoying this silly and amazing flick.
4) Sneakers (1992)
Before Clooney's Ocean's Eleven, The Usual Suspects or The Departed there was a film with an incredible ensemble cast, with great chemistry, good dialogues and a great sense of humor, which for some crazy reason, doesn't have the recognition it deserves.
Robert Redford. Sidney Poitier Dan Aykroyd. Mary McDonnell. David Strathairn. River Phoenix. All forming a team of hackers, scammers and counterfeiters assembled to test the security systems of companies, banks, and government agencies.
Oh, and the antagonist is Ben Kingsley, against whom our team must wage a brain battle for the control of a device capable of breaking the encryption of any computerized system.
Sneakers have a dumb and strategically naive patriotism but ignoring that shortcoming (which today would be unforgivable), this isn't just a great heist-comedy movie, but a wonderful little-explored piece of film history.
3) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
There's gonna be a small group out there that won't agree, but the truth is that there is no better hacker character in the whole pop culture than Lisbeth Salander. Period.
And from the adaptations of Stieg Larsson's wonderful Millenium saga, the best Lisbeth Salander, by far, is played by Noomi Rapace.
With investigative journalism as a backdrop and the use of hacking to access fundamental information, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a wonderful, dark and difficult thriller that deals with more complicated and urgent issues such as misogyny and oppressive patriarchy.
It's imperative to see the entire trilogy, which includes The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. The American version directed by David Fincher with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig is also worth a look.
What Is The Best Hacker Movie?
2) Tron (1982)
The ambitious Disney piece directed by Steven Lisberger is practically a humanization of the concrete process of hacking. Here, most of the plot happens within a computerized system, where the programs and viruses are, visually, futuristic versions of their creators, which is at the same time cute and smart.
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) literally becomes a hacking program called Clu that with the help of Tron (a security program played by Bruce Boxleitner) and Yori (another computer program played by Cindy Morgan) must expose Sark's plans for domination. Sark (David Warner, who also plays Flynn's corrupt boss) is the command program whose ambition is to control the Pentagon, the Kremlin, and China.
Cold war paranoia, groundbreaking visual effects, and an admirable attempt to interpret the new paradigm of communication and security make Tron an absolute sci-fi classic.
1) The Matrix (1999)
It was just not possible that the most massive, accurate and elaborated hacking of the whole sci-fi genre would end up in another place of this list on hacker movies.
A history of hacking and counter-hacking between humans and machines, with deep and complex philosophical and religious themes that thanks to the Wachowski's narrative genius resulted in a fantastic blockbuster full of explosions, martial arts, and groundbreaking special effects. Mr. Anderson from hacker "nerd" to Neo a reality hacking superhero.
Already too much has been written about The Matrix, an absolute gem of cinema. It's time to rewatch it for the 40th time and enjoy it in the same way as in its premiere.
As always, there are a handful of movies that could have entered the list. Among them are:
- Antitrust (2001)
- The Net (1995)
- MI4: Ghost Protocol (2011)
- Goldeneye (1995)
However, our biggest audiovisual recommendation is, by far, the TV Show Mr. Robot. There is just no better, more real and detailed portrait of hacking in cinema. Yes, it’s a TV show. But come on, it's 2017 and the barrier between TV and movies has been very blurry for a while now.
© 2019 Sam Shepards